Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in for a third term as Burundi’s President on Thursday, 20 August 2015, six days ahead of schedule. Nkurunziza’s candidacy - which is widely held to have violated the constitution and peace accord - and his subsequent winning of the elections deemed by the international community as lacking in credibility, have sparked protests over the last few months, leaving scores of people dead with many forced to flee and seek refuge abroad.
CIVICUS spoke to a trusted partner in Burundi who requested that the interview be run anonymously for reasons of personal safety.
1.How would you describe the current political situation in Burundi?
The political situation in Burundi is very tense. Many people, including political opponents, civil society activists, journalists and even ordinary citizens have fled and continue to flee the country for fear of escalating violence and oppression. Killings and torture against opponents of the third term of Pierre Nkurunziza are rife.
Right now in Burundi, there is no freedom of expression, information, assembly or association. The right to engage in political activities is severely curtailed. Anyone who dares speak out about what is going on in the country faces threats of death, imprisonment or torture.
Parliamentary and presidential elections held on 29 June and 20 July this year have been qualified by the international community and United Nations as non-credible. Since then, the ruling party in Burundi (CNDD-FDD) and the government of Burundi have refused to engage in political negotiations about the situation, despite several calls from the United Nations, African Union, European Union, United States, and many other bilateral partners.
As the political and diplomatic channels for solving the crisis in Burundi seem to have narrowed, the great fear now is that all sides will turn to violence to end the crisis. The killings of General Adolphe Nshimirimana (former chief of the secret services of Burundi) on 2 August 2015 and Colonel Jean Bekomagu (former chief of staff of the Burundi Army during the civil war of 1993) on 15 August 2015 are key flashpoints that could ignite ethnic tensions. Up to now, the motives and perpetrators of the killings are not known.
There was also an attempted assassination of prominent human rights defender, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, on the 3 August 2015 (Mr. Mbonimpa is seen as the eye, the mouth and the hope for victims of injustice in Burundi). The current state of human rights in the country is unhealthy. The Burundi National Independent Commission on Human Rights has deplored targeted assassinations. In its report released on 19 August 2015, the Commission reported on 14 cases of assassination perpetrated in the last three weeks. (More details on the Burundi National Independent Commission on Human Rights can be found here)
Rumours (because official or recognized independent sources of information no longer exist in Burundi) about arming the Imbonerakure militia, backed with the Interahamwe-FDLR, destabilization of the Burundi Police and Defence Force, and especially the killings of members of these security and defence forces who were the armed forces of Burundi during the civil war, are high. Imbonerakure and members of FDLR are reported to have also infiltrated Burundi defence and security forces
2.What is the role of the international community?
Since the beginning of the unrest caused by the proclamation of Pierre Nkurunziza as a candidate of the CNDD-FDD for a 3rd term, the international community has multiplied its interventions. These have included press releases to call Mr. Nkurunziza to abandon his 3rd term intentions, encouraging political and civil society sectors to look for peaceful ways to prevent the escalation of violence, sending missions of special envoys, and sending missions of mediators to solve the crisis. Some of Burundi’s bilateral partners, such as Belgium, the US, the Netherlands etc. have taken stronger measures such as suspending technical aid support to Burundi but Mr Nkurunziza has been stubborn, isolating Burundi from the rest of the world.
Despite all the efforts of the international community and Burundian civil society, the political and social situation in Burundi continues to worsen. Mr Nkurunziza continues with his project of ruling Burundi controversially despite risks of plunging Burundi into a deep political and economic crisis. The calls and sanctions of the international community seem to have had no effect on Nkurunziza’s project.
The international community must play a key role in taking stronger measures to protect civilians and to prevent further escalation of violence. Unfortunately, current diplomatic and political solutions have not had a significant impact on the politics in Burundi. Rescuing the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and protecting democratic rule is the responsibility of the international community as Burundi has ratified different conventions, especially the l’Accord de Cotonou’ (Cotonou Agreement) and all other conventions under UN and AU auspices. Burundi is not an isolated island and the people of Burundi have the right to be protected against dictatorship and an oppressive regime.
3.Several civil society activists and journalists have fled the country. What is your message to them?
To the journalists, civil society and human rights activists who have fled Burundi, I really understand their situation. They were frightened of being killed, tortured and jailed. What they have to know is that their fight has not been won and it should not be abandoned. There are more than 10 million Burundians who face many difficulties at social, economic and political levels. All these people need someone to advocate for them. They need voices from everywhere.
It important that these journalists and activists remember their colleagues, relatives, and friends who remain in Burundi, and who are still facing deportation, assassination, and torture. Many civil society activists and journalists in Burundi are also currently living in deep poverty because the Bujumbura regime does not allow them to work. All these problems that Burundians are facing need to be reported about so that the world knows it. Wherever they are, they have to continue their work. I understand their situation but if they took refuge where freedom exists, they have to use that space to inform others about the situation in Burundi.
Lastly, I am supportive of their work and I would use this opportunity to show compassion. Being a refugee is never an easy life. I hope that Burundi will overcome the hard times it is going through.
4. How can regional and international civil society support colleagues in Burundi?
The first support the international community can offer is to urge the government of Burundi to ensure peace and security for all Burundians and to restore fundamental freedoms, so that all Burundians can fully exercise their rights.
Secondly, the international community should support the efforts of Burundi’s civil society to find political solutions to the crisis, especially by urging the UN and the AU to take further measures to push Burundian authorities and the political opposition to come together on the negotiation table with guarantees of safety of civilians and victims of oppression and violence.
Thirdly, the international community must respond to the economic crisis that the population of Burundi in general and activists in particular, face. If civil society activists lack financial support to continue their jobs and fail to get support for their basic needs, the situation may worsen.
The deterioration of the economic situation of Burundi due to the crisis, coupled with the economic sanctions imposed by Burundi’s main donors, has also affected the work of civil society. The international community’s support to overcome this situation will be of great help.